Citing industry objections, the Transportation Security Administration is preparing to scale back a controversial plan to expand aviation security rules for the first time to thousands of private planes.
TSA officials said this week they expect to issue a revised plan this fall that will significantly reduce from 15,000 the number of U.S.-registered general-aviation aircraft subjected to tougher rules. Also, instead of mandating that all passengers aboard private planes be checked against terrorist watch lists, name checks in many cases could be left to the discretion of pilots, they said.
The shifts would mark significant rollbacks of security changes that supporters called overdue and essential to preventing terrorists from using small planes to smuggle dangerous weapons or carry out suicide attacks. Opponents, however, called the measures unwarranted, poorly thought out and overly burdensome on aircraft owners and manufacturers.
The timing of the announcement may prove contentious. A Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight by a suspected Nigerian al-Qaeda operative has resulted in new scrutiny on air travel in general, as well as watch-listing procedures, and federal authorities have ratcheted to the highest levels security for commercial flights, particularly for international travel.
“With the current threat environment . . . I find it rather shocking that they would retreat,” said consultant Glen Winn, former United and Continental airlines security chief. “I would hope there’s a review in process before this is put in motion.”
A May 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, however, said security threats involving general-aviation plans are “limited and mostly hypothetical.”
As first reported Friday by National Public Radio, TSA general-aviation manager Brian Delauter said the agency is preparing to scale back major parts of its Large Aircraft Security Program and is seeking to collaborate more with industry.
Delauter said the agency will significantly increase the size of airplanes covered by the rule, and give pilots more responsibility for ensuring aircraft security, TSA spokesman Greg Soule confirmed.
“It’s a victory for the general-aviation lobby and a loss for security,” said Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009 and a proponent of the initial plan. “There’s no good reason to exempt jets that [carry 10 to 12 passengers] from a simple check of passengers’ identities.”
TSA officials cautioned that changes to the sweeping plan, initially discussed in 2007 and proposed by the outgoing George W. Bush administration in October 2008, are not finalized by the agency, and must still be reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security and White House Office of Management and Budget.
“As the rulemaking process moves forward, we will continue to work closely with stakeholders to develop a series of sensible security measures that minimize the risk involving large general aviation aircraft,” John P. Sammon, a TSA assistant administrator, said in a statement.
Dan Hubbard, spokesman for the National Business Aviation Association, which represents 8,000 companies that rely on air service, said the shift acknowledges that commercial airlines generally transport strangers, while private plane operators know almost everyone who boards their aircraft.
“We want to give the pilot the authority to accept those people that he or she knows on board the aircraft,” said Jens Hennig, vice president of operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, which represents aircraft and component makers.
TSA has discussed scaling back rules to aircraft whose maximum takeoff weight exceeds 25,000 to 30,000 pounds, instead of 12,500 pounds, Hennig said. The change would limit new requirements — which include pilot criminal background checks and security assessments — to operators of larger corporate jets such as Gulfstream G150s, rather than smaller Cessna CitationJets, for example, he said.
Pilots of charter flights may still be required to check passenger names against the government no-fly list or list of “selectees” identified for scrutiny by counterterrorism officials, Hennig and a U.S. official said, but typical private operators would not.
TSA will not require that 320 general-aviation airports develop costly security plans, allowing them to focus instead on the security of aircraft, Soule said.
The U.S. government has stepped up passenger and flight crew checks for inbound international general-aviation flights since 2007, but the domestic private air-travel industry, a $150 billion-a-year business, has flooded DHS with opposition.
U.S. officials have said their priority was to keep unauthorized pilots out of small planes and to know who is at the controls of a plane in flight. General-aviation planes can be as big as Boeing or Airbus jetliners, and there are 375 U.S.-registered private aircraft weighing over 100,309 pounds, Hennig said.